Alder Soundplane prototype with blanks of reclaimed redwood and Doug Fir. Photo by Randy Jones; used by permission.

On tablets, on displays, multi-touch control these days is calibrated largely as a software interface – more Starship Enterprise panel than violin. As such, it works well for production tools and exploring compositional ideas. But it falls far short of being an instrument: even on the much-hyped iPad, touch timing and sensitivity is too imprecise, and the absence of tactile feedback and real, kinetic resistance makes you feel like an operator rather than a musician.

Several projects in experimental instrument research seek to change that. But of all of them, the one that has generated the most enthusiasm is Randy Jones’ Soundplane, co-developed with hardware designer Brian Willoughby. CDM shares a conversation today with Randy about his brilliant Aalto synth, and I’m working on a review soon. But wonderful as Aalto is, many of us are still eager to hear more of the Soundplane controller. I chose to wax poetic and optimistic back in December of 2008:
Intimate Control: Multi-Touch, New Models, and What 2009 is Really About

I shouldn’t have put a year on my predictions, though – good things take time. (If I could clearly recall what happened in 2009, maybe my general prediction was correct. The past tends to blur together for me into a continuum in the manner of the modern technologist, a vague assemblage of stuff that happened in the 60s with things that are actually still in the future.)

The good news: Randy continues working on the Soundplane, and Aalto will help.

Continuing our interview, here are the thoughts most relevant to Soundplane — and a glimpse of what it’s looking like as he works on it in the lab.

First, Randy explains his ideas about running a small business, continuing what he had to say in our Aalto story. The basic idea: Aalto’s software will bootstrap Soundplane’s hardware.

I think the whole idea of venture capital is sort of a poisonous one. It’s a little like bands wanting to get signed right away. The first thing you want to focus on is giving up your autonomy, really?

Instead, why not scrape together whatever you can from friends or family and just make something that you can sell right away, however small. I didn’t have enough saved to finish the Soundplane project so halfway through I switched to putting out Aalto as a plan B for paying the rent. Now it’s out and it’s a product I’m proud of that I think reflects where we’re coming from, and it’s going to fund Soundplane development, and it’s letting tons of people know we exist. Just get a foot in the door, do something useful.

He also shares his feelings about patents:

Some people won’t like to hear this, but I applied for a patent on the sensor used in the Soundplane. I know, the patent system is totally broken, and often, if not usually, used in stupid ways. But if there’s one thing I think it is actually good for, it’s to protect small companies like ours that innovate against a bigger entity simply stealing their R&D. This is why it was designed, right? I don’t know if our patent will save the day if such a thing ever happens, but if it does I’d much rather have one than not. It’s a pain to write one but it’s not impossible, you just need a lot of patience. “Patent it Yourself“, Nolo Press, is a good reference.

The patent question raises some additional questions for me – in fact, I’d love to see open source hardware that’s also backed by patent protection, in the same way that the GPL license is made tenable largely through the existence of traditional copyright laws.

But I do tend to agree that in the case of a truly novel technology, which this is, patent protection may be necessary. The question for projects like this will be whether to operate as a conventional, patent-protected design, or whether some sort of open source model with a patent covenant and a copyleft license like GPL will make sense — both preventing exploitation and allowing free experimentation. If there are any IP lawyers lurking around out there, let us know (I have some contacts, too); and definitely let us know if that’s a conversation you’d like us to continue.

In the meantime, the important thing is that Soundplane lives, and using Aalto could help it come to fruition. We’ll absolutely keep you posted.

As proof, though, more shots from the lab:

Photos by Randy Jones (top) and Brian Willoughby (bottom).

Also, must-read article from shortly after Jones’ NIME presentation:
Why Soundplane?

The whole article is worth reading, but Jones argues that not only is it likely many people will try to do tactile multi-touch, but it may be necessary. For those of you not all that good at hardware design, you could be just as essential as well to there being any future for these curiosities. The designers need other designers. The hardware needs software creators – lots of them. The software creators need to try lots of ideas. And everybody needs players, composers … users.

It’s all-too-tempting to sit back on the Web and marvel at what everyone else is doing, to take their genius and novelty as an engraved invitation to give up on your own work. “It’s been done before.” “Someone else is already doing this.” It’s probably a topic for a dedicated article, but it’s simply the wrong reaction. “It’s been done before — maybe it’s worth doing. Or doing again. Or doing better. Or doing over and over again.” “Other people are doing this — that means I have someone else to do it with.”

Historically, revolutions aren’t solo pieces. They’re ensembles.

Updated: speaking of work being ensembles, while Randy’s name is most associated with the Soundplane project, credit is due to hardware designer Brian Willoughby, who did the hardware design for the instrument. As he wrote in comments on CDM in 2010, when we covered Roger Linn’s Linnstrument: “For my part, I’ve been deep into the process of designing the analog circuits, DSP hardware and firmware necessary for the product, so it’s nice to poke my head up for a moment and see interest on this site, as well as to hear about other engineers trying new things and inspiring ideas.”

  • Peter, as a Creative Commons advocate who has experienced its merits far more thoroughly than I, you would be in a better position to access realistically what a patent would accomplish for this technology.

    However, from my position, innovation is more like the pollen that's scattered by the wind. There are dynamic elements which make certain innovations a success and others  recede into history. Randy's reasoning of venture capitalists, for example, is a case-by-case decision, not a one size fits all piece of advice. There are many inventions which have been patented, will never find the light of day in any market, but in their existence utterly halt all progress and potential in their areas of art (which I'm using as a general term for original design and invention) because the intellectual rights to that area of invention are locked away and protected. Other patents, known as submarine patents, are literally there to stake claim in a concept without presenting any practical effort to the betterment or advancement of society. They are a form of hyper-privitization, at rational equilibrium yet inefficient and sub-optimal. 

    If this piece of gear sits on the developer's desk indefinitely, no one will be in a position to "do it again" "do it better" or "do it with other people, openly." And the price of this exclusivity has a rather high point of entry to begin with. That's the real reason prototyping and full patent applications have become less popular. Now if Randy doesn't find a licensee or can't make this himself at anything but a boutique price, the rest of us might as well sit back, because the only role we'll really have is that of an audience member-no complaints there really.

  • Peter Kirn

    @James: I have some of the same concerns. I only mean this — even "patented" and "open source" are not mutually exclusive categories. On the contrary, a lot of open source projects are looking to add patent protection, because it helps ensure the viability and safety of the project (it keeps them open source, and helps protect people who build on that work from exposing themselves to litigation). It's a very, very complex legal issue, though, so I don't want to be flippant about it, just raising some questions. It's certainly not as simple as saying "patents are evil, so I'll avoid getting patents." And on the other hand, I don't think every DIY music project needs to worry about applying for patents, either.

  • @James: It's absolutely true that my advice re: VC doesn't fit everyone.  Some good ideas really *do* take a million dollars to execute. I just happen to not be interested in those kinds of ideas.

    I want to address your concern about "If this sits on the developer's desk…", in other words, little me stifling innovation.  A patent, in itself, doesn't prevent anyone from doing anything.  I give my active encouragement to any person who wants to build a Soundplane for their own use.  My prototype was fully described in a paper I published at NIME, and at least one group made their own version.  You can see the results linked from the DIY section on my website.  So– the project is open-source.  But not in a viral sense.  If it were software it would be MIT license. 

    If anyone has the resources to make Soundplanes for mass production, using the innovation that I came up with and published, I feel it would be absolutely unfair for them to do so without compensating or crediting me.  And in that unlikely situation, the only reason I have the patent, hopefully it will be a legal leg to stand on. 

    More context might make this discussion more meaningful: my patent applied for is for a particular method of sensing, using frequency-domain multiplexing, as applied to multitouch.  The area of force surface sensing was already crowded with patents by the 1980's or so.  In other words, there are other ways to make a Soundplane, and most projects started from scratch wouldn't do it the same way, because though it has certain advantages it's not the obvious way to solve the problem.  

    The price of the patent application, FWIW, was 2-3 weeks of my time and under $1000 total.  I don't think this a very high bar if you're thinking of putting a product on the market, or leading a serious open-source project. 

  • pierre allaise

    Randy is also the man that introduced Bruno Pronsato and Jon McMillion to the world from his label Orac.

  • Soundplane is such a beautiful instrument. Purrr… 

  • Randy, very best of luck in your endeavors! I greatly look forward to playing one…

  • @Randy
    $1000 is doable, certainly, considering the cost of materials to prototype, the invested hours of work etc. Even if this was just for a provisional patent, you'd be in a good position to show it around safely. If you needed more of the overall design patented, you'd need to bracket further specifics with further patents, and now that would get expensive.

    And thank you for addressing my comment about VCs. Given the right fit, they're still taking just as much of a leap of faith. Granted they probably have more of a shark instinct than your typical musician. Nonetheless, nothing precludes an inventor from negotiating ownership or exit clauses, even agreed sponsorship of further patents under your name.

    If the idea is good, I have no problem with you making big bucks. Why couldn't this be the point? Quite flawed as the system is, we put impetus on the individual using that money for something other than gold-lined swimming pools and caviar dreams. So if your personality befits contributing to the social good, you can still do it in a quasi-egalitarian manner; I trust you.
    How were the first piano's made? Certainly with many keyboards that came before them. Germany has a different notion of property when it comes to invention, and I wonder if the piano design was at some point public domain. It still isn't in some very practical ways: it takes a guild to understand how to make them, manufacturing costs are a high price of entry, imitation is prohibitively complex and expensive.

    And as for design, when I see something ubiquitous that can represent my current directions for musical expression, why shouldn't I be able to get my hands on it and get good at it? If the timing of your design addresses this shift from the patents in the 80's, think MIDI, to our current shift to OSC, then you're probably onto something. I don't play basketball with a squash ball one day and refrigerator box the next, no, the hoop's at a specific height and I know if I'm getting good at the game. I think some of us musicians are looking for that new benchmark.

  • frankie d

    Just curious, for $1,000 how long does a patent last? do you have to keep renewing the patent? I just figured it was really expensive to keep doing it so I never looked into it.

    Thank you and I love the Soundplane.

  • This is going to be a fantastic year.

    Excellent work Randy and Brian!

    I remember seeing the prototype video a while ago, and it just amazed me. The bongo part especially. I also remember thinking, "if this doesn't catch on, electronic music performance is doomed". It just looks like a such a natural way to control the computer.